With the Michigan football team’s 2016 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2017. In this edition: offensive line.
It was the same story in 2016 as in 2015 for the Michigan football team’s offensive line, and that was good news for the Wolverines.
For the offensive line, the days of being the most maligned unit on the team in the woeful 2013 and 2014 seasons are still in memory. Three of the five starters on the line were regulars on those teams. But the back half of their careers brought major improvements in the line play, and those continued this season.
For most of the fall, the ground game looked like the Michigan rushing attacks of old, led by Chris Perry and then Mike Hart in the early 2000s, though without as much of a workhorse at running back. Though the defense was still the dominant unit, the Wolverines controlled games up front and used that edge to salt away the clock in their victories.
Statistically, Michigan went from 102nd in rushing in 2013 to 62nd in 2014 to 83rd in 2015 to finally 15th this year. The pass blocking improved, too. The Wolverines gave up more than two sacks per game in 2013 and 2014 before ranking in the top 30 in that category in each of the past two seasons.
Michigan’s offense owes much of its success to those trends. The ability to run the ball has opened up the playbook, and the better pass blocking has made life easier on quarterbacks Jake Rudock and Wilton Speight.
And the improvement has been in the making for a long time. The three mainstays on the line — fifth-year seniors Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson — took their lumps as young players and have spoken all season about how much better it made them. They were more experienced than just about every opposing front they faced this season after being on the other end of that clash earlier in their careers.
Long-term stability is a factor as well. Michigan replaced the only starter it lost, center Graham Glasgow, by sliding junior Mason Cole from left tackle to center. He along with Braden, Kalis, Magnuson and true freshman remained the go-to group for the last five games of the regular season, and Michigan didn’t go away from them often, adding to their consistency.
Only at the end of the year, when the Wolverines played their toughest games of the season, did the offensive line let up in the run game. In late road games at Iowa and Ohio State, Michigan rushed for fewer than 100 yards for the first two times all season. Six times, however, they eclipsed the 200-yard mark.
HIGH POINT: One easy choice is the Oct. 8 drubbing of Rutgers, in which Michigan ran for 478 yards and nine touchdowns, but the more impressive overall performance came two weeks earlier against Penn State.
That day, Michigan rushed for 326 yards and six touchdowns — both second-most of the season — and did not allow a sack. Starting Newsome, Braden, Cole, Kalis and Magnuson for the third straight week, the offensive line jelled and dominated Penn State. After that game, Speight said that at one point, the Wolverines ran the same rushing play over and over without being stopped. Sure enough, one of Michigan’s drives ended with seven straight run plays for 43 yards and a touchdown.
The feat is even more impressive in hindsight: Penn State has not lost since that day and beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions ended up finishing a modest 48th and giving up just 153.5 rushing yards per game.
LOW POINT: Despite the late struggles against Iowa and Ohio State, the offensive line’s worst moment wasn’t a poor performance — it was one of the few sour memories Michigan will carry from this season. On Oct. 1 against Wisconsin at Michigan Stadium, Newsome went down in the second quarter with a serious knee injury, one that seemed to dampen the morale of the entire team.
Newsome had several surgeries on his knee in the weeks following his injury, and he ended up spending more than a month in the hospital. On Dec. 1, he tweeted a video of him taking his first steps since the injury. A devastating blow to one of the more well-liked players on the team was tough for Michigan to handle.
“What I do know is, as far as character, human being character, football character, nobody’s ever come through here, this football team or this university, that I know of, with more of it than Grant Newsome,” coach Jim Harbaugh said two days after the injury. “Leon and Kim Newsome, they should write a book on raising kids. Grant is the finest, and just praying for him right now. It’s not a good feeling today at all. But just being with him at the hospital, everybody he’s come in contact with, nurses and doctors, it’s ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It’s amazing. He is an amazing, amazing young man.”
THE FUTURE: As in many areas, Michigan’s decorated senior class will leave some holes on the offensive line. Braden, Kalis and Magnuson have exhausted their eligibility, and Cole said he is undecided between returning for a senior season and entering the NFL Draft.
If he returns and Bredeson stays at left guard, that leaves openings at left tackle, right guard and right tackle. Redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty — who started at left tackle Oct. 8 at Rutgers — is one option to take over that spot if Cole and Bredeson stay at their positions. On the right side, the competition will be wide-open, but one name to watch is promising freshman guard Michael Onwenu. Whoever takes over the workload, though, will have a lot of experience to replace.